December 21, 2005 --
A budget surplus will greet local legislators attending the General Assembly in Richmond next month. This will be a novelty for some, and three local legislators said Wednesday that education would be among their priorities.
Delegate Robert B. Bell III, 58th district; Delegate R. Steven Landes, 25th district; and Delegate-elect David J. Toscano, 57th district, addressed several hundred U.Va. employees and area residents at a legislative forum at Newcomb Hall, talking about what they see ahead in the coming legislative session.
Bell, who occupies Thomas Jefferson’s seat in the assembly, said this would be the first year in his legislative career that he has wrestled with a budget surplus. He said he would be looking at salary increases for state employees, money for building maintenance and more funding for on-going research. He is also concerned about campus safety measures, noting that U.Va. is already using many of the best management practices, and said he would be interested in establishing legislation dealing with sexual offenses.
Landes, who may be vice-chair of the education committee next year, said education would top his priority list, with health care and transportation coming close behind. But he also cautioned his fellow legislators about euphoria over the surplus.
“Having more money is not necessarily easier,” he said, noting that in lean times, people expect to tighten their belts. He predicted that with a surplus, legislators would be more inclined to make one-shot expenditures rather than commit themselves to on-going expenses.
Legislators may also determine the length of the governor’s term, Landes said. Currently, Virginia law prevents governors from succeeding themselves, which means that they come into office inheriting a two-year budget and do not oversee management of their second two-year budget. Landes said that while he supports two consecutive four-year terms, others favored extending the governor’s post to one six-year term. The longer single term would make it possible for a governor to fashion and oversee two two-year budgets.
He said the legislature would also look at the governor’s appointment powers and reconsider what economic models would be used for budget projections.
Toscano, elected to fill the vacancy left by Mitchell Van Yahres’ retirement, said he has not been selected for any committees yet, but stated there was a lot do in a “bipartisan fashion."
He cited his background in teaching and research to show his support of education, and said the state needs to invest in people, capital projects and research. He supports Gov. Mark Warner’s research initiative, which calls for $255 million in state funds to be matched by $299 million from participating universities.
“Education is the key to the community’s hopes and dreams,” he said, adding that the country needs to invest in higher education to keep its position in the world.
Other issues in which he expressed his interest included raising the minimum wage, opening access to medications imported from foreign countries and easing the use of absentee ballots.
Bradley R. Sayler, a computer systems engineer at the University, asked legislators if they would support a cost-of-living differential, similar to that for state troopers in Northern Virginia, for University employees in the Charlottesville area. Sayler said the cost of living was getting too expensive for local salaries.
Landes, who said this was the first he had heard of the proposal, said he would be willing to consider it, but there would be details to work out.
Toscano cited studies comparing Charlottesville to Northern Virginia in terms of cost of living, but said there would have to be lines drawn on what areas were affected. Bell agreed that housing costs are a serious issue in Charlottesville, but he cautioned against having any differential divided by geography.
There was also a question about teens on medications, who get dropped from their parents’ health insurance plans when they reach a particular age, but who cannot afford insurance on their own. Landes said he would work with the health care community to extend coverage. Melvin L. Miller Jr., associate director of student financial services, said health insurance is considered as part of the student financial aid on a case-by-case basis.
There were also appeals to the legislators for increased funding for brain-injured patients and for the Charlottesville Free Clinic.
Contact: Matt Kelly